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Sci Study Lit. 2012 Jan 1;2(2):301-315.

Theory of Mind and embedding of perspective: A psychological test of a literary "sweet spot"

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Graduate Center, City University of New York and Haskins Laboratories/University of Kentucky, Lexington/Yale University and Columbia University.


Theory of Mind (ToM) has been proposed to explain social interactions, with real people but also with fictional characters, by interpreting their mind as well as our own. "Perspective embedding" exploits ToM by placing events in characters' minds (e.g., "he remembered she was home"). Three levels of embedment, common in literature, may be a "sweet spot" that provides enough information about a character's motivation, but not a confusing over-abundance. Here, we use short vignettes with 1 or 3 characters and 0-5 levels of perspective embedding in two reading studies to see whether these preferences might be related to processing ease. Self-paced readers were fastest with one level of embedment, increasingly slower as embedment increased; vignettes without embedment were approximately as slow as level 4. With both self-paced and imposed timing, error rates on probe questions increased only at the fifth level. Readers seem to prefer literary texts in which ToM operations are obvious due to embedding of perspectives within the narrative but still somewhat challenging.


literature; perspective embedding; reading; theory of mind

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